Like many American males, I have a recurring fantasy.
It usually strikes while I’m sitting at my tying bench, admiring my latest creation through the big magnifying glass on my tying light. Instead of the cluttered, out-of-focus bench top in the background, I see my newest fly gently drifting downward in sparkling water, surrounded by a forest of aquatic plants. Suddenly what I thought had been a shadow materializes just beneath my descending fly. It is the largest bluegill I’ve ever seen. It must be spawning season; his chest and belly are irridescent reddish-orange. Frankengill's pectoral fins slowly fan as he adjusts his position beneath the falling fly. At the last possible second, his lower jaw juts from beneath that massive forehead, and he tenderly sucks the fly into his mouth...
Bruce has asked me to jot down a few thoughts on “why I like bluegills.”
That’s a bit like asking me “why I like the opposite sex,” only even more difficult to answer. I was so young when I started liking bluegills that, at the time, I thought girls were just slow targets for snowballs. Luckily for me, my appreciation of both has done nothing but grow through the years.
Now that’s not to say they both haven’t been the source of some frustration and broken hearts. Especially the bluegills.
It’s well known within the limited circles I travel that my single greatest unfulfilled angling goal – the #1 item on my personal “bucket list” – is to catch a 2-lb. Nebraska bluegill on my fly rod.
In theory, it’s possible. The Nebraska record – now 31 years old – is a 2 lb., 13 oz. monster caught at Grove Lake in the northeastern part of the state. A bait fisherman caught it on a nightcrawler. Some of the sandhills lakes on the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in northcentral Nebraska have given up numerous two pounders – usually through the ice. Further west, two lakes named Smith reportedly harbor giant gills. I was at one of them just last spring and heard several folks in the campground talk about the two-pounder a fellow had caught only a few days before I’d arrived. “It wouldn’t lie flat in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket,” one guy insisted. But they all agreed the lucky fisherman took it home in that bucket and ate it.
Eastern Nebraska, where I live, has hundreds and hundreds of private farm ponds, and a shocking number of them shelter bluegills bigger than dinner plates, if you can believe the stories I’m told. An interesting coincidence is that none of these storytellers knows how to obtain permission to fish the particular pond he describes.
If the first prerequisite for catching a two-pound bluegill is to fish waters where they live, I’ve been doing my part. My little Tacoma pickup has racked up 1,500-2,000 miles each of the past three summers in my search for Moby Gill, without ever leaving the state. I also read everything I can find about bluegills – both popular and scientific literature – and I’m always looking for more. If you Google “bluegill+fly,” you get 270,000 hits. I have a few left to read. I’ve no doubt the missing piece of the puzzle is hidden in some obscure paper by an under-appreciated graduate student, and I’ll recognize it when I see it.
The trail has had some curious dead ends. For example, few people apparently recognize the relationship between Girl Scouts and big bluegills. I was advised last year that a particular Girl Scout camp in Nebraska has a pond where the bluegills are “huge,” and “nobody fishes there except for a couple of weeks in the summer.” Then, not six months later, I heard almost exactly the same story about a Girl Scout camp in western Iowa. Where were these tipsters 15 years ago when my daughter was 12, living at home, and might have been coerced into joining a troop?
Why bluegills for me? Why not crappie, or largemouth bass, or trout, or another game fish? Part of it is I’ve already had my quota of luck with some of them. My “bass-of-a-lifetime” is hanging on the wall above my tying table. I’m unlikely to ever catch a bigger crappie than I did 30 years ago, drowning minnows one Sunday afternoon off the end of the family dock. But despite numerous one-pounders, I’ve never caught a 1.5-pound bluegill, let alone a two.
I suppose the biggest reason I love bluegills is their spunk. You can see it in their face, with that protruding, Marciano-like lower jaw. I’ve caught enough one-pound ‘gills to know that any of them, if linked tail-to-tail with a bass twice his size, could pull Mr. Bass backward. In circles. And that’s the other reason. I love the circles and twists a bluegill scribes when he realizes the bug he’s bitten isn’t real. A crappie, when hooked, shrugs his slender shoulders and lays over on his side. A bluegill downshifts, accelerates, and does the piscatoral equivalent of a Porsche on a hairpin mountain road. So many times I’ve set the hook, thrilled to obvious weight at the end of the line, then be disappointed as yet another two- or three-pound bass makes a short sprint in a straight line. In those few seconds, a big bluegill would have made seven left turns and two rights.
I’m going to keep looking for my two-pound bluegill. But I’ll tell you this: if there’s anything to reincarnation, when I come back I want something a lot easier for my obsession. Unicorn hunter would do.